Fire officials say this one habit could save your life

Image Credit: WIAT
Image Credit: WIAT

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (WIAT) – In a fire, a couple of seconds can be the difference between life and death. But there’s something that you could do every night that could buy you a few more minutes to escape the flames. It’s as simple as three words, “shut the door.”

In recent years, more agencies and fire departments have started advising people to shut their bedroom doors before going to sleep at night.

“A closed door may slow the spread of smoke, heat, and fire,” The National Fire Protection Agency advises. “Install smoke alarms in every sleep room and outside each separate sleeping area. For the best protection, make sure all smoke alarms are interconnected.”

That time-saving advice is particularly important to Jennifer Gilbreath’s family. In July, the family was awoken by a fire that was chewing through their kitchen and attic.

“In the panic and not being able to realize what was going on, we just lost a lot of seconds,” Gilbreath said.

The fire was growing on the same end of the house as the bedroom of Gilbreath’s 13-year-old daughter. Crimson Gilbreath was sleeping with her door open that night, and said that she was burning before she ever even woke up.

Jennifer ran to Crimson’s bedroom to wake her up, but when they tried to run back down the hallway they were blocked by a wall of fire.

“We could see and feel the heat and smoke coming toward us,” Jennifer remembered. “It was just like the oxygen had been sucked out of the air. Where–if we had had a door closed to contain it, and then we could have gotten out, that could have made a huge difference.”

Jennifer told WAVY sister station CBS42 News that she and Crimson had to find the strength to run through those flames to get to the door. Now, she wishes she’d had more time to process what was going on–and instead gone out the window.

Luckily, the entire family was able to get out before the roof collapsed, but the Gilbreaths suffered burns that left them hospitalized for 36 days.

“We were blessed to have 10 minutes that we could get out, but you may not always be blessed with that,” Jennifer said. “That was just a panic. We just want everybody to be prepared.”

The family told CBS42 News that while they were in the hospital, they started talking about what they wanted to do to improve their fire safety plan–and help other families.

“Yes, we have scars. We have injuries. But we just want to come out and share this story that can help–and maybe save lives in the future,” Jennifer said. “Maybe prevent burns in the future, and then people that do get burned -the children and even adults- can look to Crimson as an inspiration.”

Crimson is already inspiring people around her. Although she is still recovering from those third degree burns, she is attending school and talking openly about fire safety. She wants children to talk to their parents and practice their fire drills. As for the family’s new home that’s under construction now, she wants exterior doors on each bedroom and more fire alarms in the home.

“We didn’t hear the smoke alarm until we were back at my grandmother’s home, and then our house completely collapsed. Then it went off,” said Crimson.

CBS 42 wanted to do a test of our own to see what kind of a time difference shutting a door can make. We teamed up with the Alabama Fire College in Tuscaloosa to set two fires in their Arson Investigator classroom–which is built to look like a modern home. We timed each fire–one with the bedroom door shut, and the other with an open bedroom door.

“The more barriers you have between the fire and whatever you’re trying to protect, the better you’re going to be,” said Matt Russell, Section Chief of Training with the Fire College.

First, firefighters set the fire in a home with an open bedroom door.

“Before 5.5 minutes there was plenty of smoke,” Russell said. “There were flames licking around the bedroom.”

In the next test, the bedroom door was shut. We waited outside the classroom for over 15 minutes before firefighters had to go in and put out the flames.

“We expected a slow progression,” Russell said. “The fire was oxygen starved.”

After both fires were out, we went back inside with Adrean Booth, Training Specialist with the Alabama Fire College. She pointed to the walls outside of the two doors where the fires had been set.

“You can look between these two doors and see that there’s very minimal smoke damage,” Booth said, pointing to the side where the door had been shut. “As opposed to this one that’s covered in soot on the roof here where the door was open. You can tell how much the fire spread.”

As for inside the rooms were the fires were, the fire in the ‘shut-door room’ never even got as large as the fire in the ‘open-door room’.

“We helped the fire along to even get it to this point,” Russell said. “If the door is open, there’s more oxygen in that location. It’s going to travel the path of least resistance.”

Firefighters want to be clear: shutting the door is just one thing that you can do to take a proactive approach to buying yourself more time in a potential fire.

Having working smoke alarms and multiple evacuation plans are two equally important measures. Having a shut bedroom door can simply act as a barrier between you and the fire, heat, and dangerous smoke, which could buy you extra time to think and figure out a way to escape, or, give firefighters more time to reach you.

“If we can teach people to keep their doors shut, that’s going to reduce the flame and smoke extension, and allow the occupants time to get out of the structure–then we’ve accomplished our mission,” said Russell.

For more information on how to talk to your kids about closing their bedroom door, visit https://closeyourdoor.org.